Giant on the move
The normally dull routine of presidential arrivals at Beijing’s airport turned into a mini-scuffle when Hugo Chavez arrived in Beijing for a “working visit” that he sprung on the Chinese about a month ago. The Chinese Foreign Ministry wasn’t eager for Chavez to mar the ceremony with a long-winded speech to the press, even though the Venezuelan embassy had invited journalists to the airport.
As we gathered on bleachers set up about 30 yards from the waiting staircases, the television crews decided to call Chavez over for an inpromptu question-and-answer session. Immediately, the staircases were wheeled away to another spot, more than double the distance from the journalists and certainly well out of earshot.
As the plane slowly approached, the large Chinese and Venezuelan welcoming delegation began walking towards the red carpet, far, far away from us. But then a Venezuelan doubled back and gestered to the press. A break! Journalists sprinted towards the plane, dodging the airport security guards.
A furious argument ensued, as security guards tried to shove reporters back while maintaining some decorum with the embassy representatives. Chavez descended the stairs, grinning amidst the chaos. At the end of the carpet, he turned and began to talk to reporters, while the Chinese guards tried to edge him towards the cars. A few minutes of talking, with no end in sight, made them more impatient. Amid a new round of pushing, Chavez himself got bumped.
“Please,” he said in English as he turned to the guards. “Soft, soft.”
Photo caption: Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez speaks to the media upon his arrival at Beijing airport for his two-day visit to China, April 7, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Lee
Visitors arriving bleary-eyed and bad-tempered to China after gruelling long-distance flights are encountering a veritable people’s army of astonishingly polite and disciplined volunteers who attend to our every whim and need.
When I got off the plane after a jetlag-inducing flight from East Africa, I found myself shepherded, as in a dream, from post-to-post by an array of smiling students. ‘This way for your Olympic fast-track channel, sir … your accreditation … your bus … your room … your complimentary umbrella.’ Some were already fluent in English, others shyly practising newly-learned phrases, crushed if I didn’t understand first time.
First the Chinese authorities provided foreigners with a list of dos and don’ts for when they visit the games. Now Human Rights Watch has got into the act, providing foreign journalists with its own booklet giving advice on how to report out of China.
The Reporters’ Guide gives useful information on what do if police detain you (don’t hit them), what to do if your reporting rights are not respected (complain) and what to do to prevent anyone snooping on your stories or emails (one suggestion — use gmail and add an ‘s’ at the end of http in the URL).